Winthrop fans cheer on the Ramblers late in the fourth quarter against Boothbay in the Class C South championship game Saturday at the Augusta Civic Center. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal Buy this Photo

WINTHROP — Just a few days before the Winthrop girls basketball team won its regional championship last Saturday night, Ramblers head coach Joe Burnham sent a group text to some former players.

There’s something about the nip in February’s night air that reminds him of a team that — during the 2014-15 season — never got the chance to compete for much of anything.

They certainly weren’t about to play in the program’s first Class C state title game since 1990 like the Ramblers will this weekend against Central Aroostook.

“We’re having a lot of success now, and we’ve got a lot of talented players and people are excited about the program again, but those girls laid the foundation,” Burnham said. “It’s never fun to lay the foundation for anything.”

Burnham took over the Winthrop girls basketball program in the summer of 2013. The Ramblers went winless that winter. Less than 18 months after landing his first head coaching job, the coach came to a decision.

In 2013-14, Winthrop would field only a junior varsity girls basketball team.

Not everybody supported the move. Parents were not happy. Joel Stoneton, in just his second year as the school’s athletic director, wasn’t sure it was the right thing. Upperclassmen quit the team when they found out they wouldn’t be playing varsity teams.

Burnham was unfazed.

What he saw were players who had no appreciable basketball skills, or whose skills were no better than your average sixth-graders. He saw a team getting beat by 30, 40, even 50 or 60 points on the regular. He saw a lack of — or zero — offseason commitment.

He also saw something much worse. He saw the debilitating effect of lopsided losses piling up one after the other, fans not even sticking around for girls games on nights when they played Mountain Valley Conference doubleheaders at home alongside Winthrop’s boys team.

“I had girls I wasn’t comfortable putting in 50-point blowouts because they didn’t know the rules of the game — and now they were going to be starters the next year,” Burnham said. “It was just going to demoralize them more to go and keep getting beat like that.”

So he had a discussion with Stoneton and came to a very unpopular decision.

“One of things that struck me about when he talked about it was that he didn’t have a plan to come in and turn it around overnight,” Stoneton said. “It wasn’t like he said it was all going to be fixed immediately. He knew it was a long-term process. He knew he may lose a kid or two along the way, but the culture of getting hammered night in and night out was hurting, and this was going to pay off in the long run.”

Winthrop senior captains Natalie Frost, left, and Aaliyah WilsonFalcone celebrate just after time runs out against Boothbay in the Class C South championship game Saturday at the Augusta Civic Center. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal Buy this Photo

What Burnham liked most about the junior varsity season in 2013-14 wasn’t necessarily the most obvious reason for going that route in the first place. Sure, it put less pressure on kids and it allowed him to do more situational coaching at a skill level more appropriate for the players he had at the time.

The best part of all of it was that the team was competitive, and though it only won four of its JV games that winter, they were learning now how to close out games in their grasp.

“Winning is a skill just as much as shooting is,” Burnham said.

When that junior varsity team finally won a game, Burnham wasn’t ready for the reaction.

“We played Hall-Dale’s JV, and it was the exact same reaction to the one we had the other night when we won the regional championship,” the coach recalled this week. “They were jumping up and down and hugging each other. I just turned around — like a jerk — I said, ‘Come on. Don’t do that. Act like you’ve been here before.’

“I found out after that my sophomores had never won a game in sixth grade, seventh grade, eighth grade, ninth grade. They’d never won a basketball game before. In fact, they hadn’t been there before.”

In that moment, Burnham realized he’d made the perfect decision to restart everything.

Here’s Burnham now with a group of seniors in 2020, four of them in the starting lineup each night for the Ramblers in the deepest tournament run they’ve made in 30 years, who were in seventh grade the year Winthrop didn’t have a varsity team.

Winthrop head coach Joe Burnham, top left, and the Ramblers close a timeout late in the Class C South championship game Saturday at the Augusta Civic Center. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal Buy this Photo

For this current crop of Ramblers, not being competitive wasn’t really an option — not like it would have been had things never changed.

“I always knew I’m going to be committed, I’m going to do it,” Winthrop captain Natalie Frost said. “This is a group of people that I’ve grown up with, and we always knew we were going to bring the program back. Coach Burnham has done a great job of integrating us all together.”

Joe Burnham went more than 21 months between varsity basketball games for his team, more than 600 days.

What he did in the meantime likely paid larger dividends for Winthrop than had the Ramblers slogged through incremental improvements — instead of losing by 40 points, losing by 20; perhaps eking out two wins against programs struggling themselves with numbers — Burham instituted a culture.

There were 8 a.m. Saturday practices, win or lose. The players on the team volunteered their time to help coach in the town’s youth basketball program. There were summer league games, workouts and practices.

And Burnham stood through all of it with the same demeanor the entire way.

“In my opinion, two major things made this work,” Stoneton said. “First of all, it’s who he is as a person. He kept people feeling good, and the whole culture started to breed itself. The other thing is that he was able to look at the long-term picture. Even if they got beat or something didn’t work, he would reset the next day and come up with game plan and not get off-kilter.

“He could separate his ego from winning and losing. That’s one of his greatest gifts.”

And he might deliver Winthrop another gift Saturday night in the form of a Gold Ball. If he does, he’ll have another group of players to reach out to five years from now, reminded of them each time tournament season tips off inside the Augusta Civic Center.


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